Saturday, January 16, 2021

Embracing the new era, Dance Kaleidoscope posits 'A New Dawn'

Masked and with touching mostly proscribed by pandemic protocols, Dance Kaleidoscope has expanded its art for the era of video streaming with a two-work program titled "A New Dawn." The world-premiere pieces draw from the limitations imposed by Covid-19 to send a sinuous message of hope and new spheres for creative expression.

With supple, well-coordinated camera work by WFYI-TV, the company is shown in its usual performing space, the main stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre. Visual components that make the choreography appeal to the senses (on screens through Jan. 24) come from the troupe's veteran lighting designer, Laura E. Glover, and costume designers Guy Clark and Cheryl Sparks.

Natalie Clevenger in a "New Dawn" scene 
Guest choreographer André Megerdichian, a former DK member, has compared his habitual way of unifying his ideas for a piece to attempting to assemble a satellite out of stray pieces gathered in outer space. The new work has that pieced-together quality with evidence of a personal signature throughout, fashioned far beyond thin air. 

"Communal isolation" is a phrase he came up with in an interview with DK marketing director Paul Hansen; it's fleshed out in "Belly of the Whale." The whale is the global leviathan that has ingested and holds all of us, in Megerdichian's view. And I think he is on to something: The elements we have to hand, anything accessible, are what we fashion in order to get our lives to cohere when so many resources are unavailable to us. "We are all in this together," the cliché we got used to as a rallying cry throughout most of 2020, inevitably highlights isolation as much as community in Megerdichian's choreography.

The ensemble comes on to a march that morphs into a calypso. Concentric circles of light on the stage imply patterns that take in whatever unifying features they can. There's a dramatic shift at a point when an onstage costume change, freeing the dancers from robe-like confines, is initiated by a solo female dancer. The music, with its minimalist pulsations, suggests through the dancers' rising, reaching, and falling gestures our mirrored attempts to fight mental and physical claustrophobia. Near the end, the ensemble gathers facing forward standing like a chorus; against an instrumental drone, the dancers seem to be uniting around a ritual, as one dancer on the floor mimics cleansing motions. In the finale, everyone enters in a processional, with raised arms crossed at the wrist. The accompaniment is lighter, dominated by harp, but are the wrists bound or are they ritualizing acceptance of temporary limitations, with figures standing tall in readiness to once again reclaim their wonted freedom?

Stuart Coleman's "Hindsight/Blindsight" locks into a personal narrative of the year just past. The work's three sections clearly point to a linear view of the Covid-19 experience: "What We Thought Would Happen," "What Actually Happened," and "What Happens Next."  Much of the music of John Psathas chosen for the work draws heavily upon Bela Bartok, particularly the sonic aggressiveness of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The first part sets ensemble coordination in contrast with small-scale opposition to any movement toward consensus. As in the past, I like the abundance and flow of Coleman's choreography. Though it's chock-full of ideas, things meld gracefully without mere busywork. Transitions that seem abrupt all of a sudden look logical and better prepared for than we had any reason to expect.

In his interview with Hansen, Coleman admits to being an instinctive planner, and his imagination

Stuart Coleman's solo in his "Hindsight/Blindsight"

fortunately allows him to keep the plans from becoming a series of set-pieces. In this piece, patterns emerge in the ensemble out of ostensible incoherence. The dark costumes and sepulchral lighting
in "What Actually Happened" allow for the emergence of individual enlightenment, represented by Coleman himself "taking a knee" for about eight minutes until one dancer of the group presents himself in suffering postures to the spotlighted dancer. The mass dawning of social conscience is encapsulated.

The encounter generates Coleman's graceful solo, again full of ideas but never blurred with padding. "What Happens Next" opens up vistas of a better future. The ensemble spreads its wings; ecstatic whirling galvanizes the company. Outsize energy with explicit optimism makes for the kind of finale that would surely bring a live audience immediately to its feet at the end. Maybe "Hindsight/Blindsight"'s  deuxieme  in the not too distant future will create such a rousing scenario. We can only hope. A new dawn must be coming.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]



Sunday, December 6, 2020

Jennifer Koh wraps up her examination of solo Bach juxtaposed with modern works

 The "Bach & Beyond" series that the wide-ranging American violinist Jennifer Koh launched in 2012 has

Jennifer Koh explores Bach et al.

now finished with the third and final album (Cedille Records). Not surprisingly, it ends the series with distinction, setting on two discs J.S. Bach's solo sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 beside (respectively) Luciano Berio's "Sequenza VIII" and John Harbison's "For Violin Alone."

To get to the Bach performances first: It's amazing how much lyricism she finds in the music. All the contrapuntal implications don't swamp the elucidation she gives to the composer's melodic savvy. Each sonata contains a demanding fugue, and there Koh clearly lays everything out, line by line. Her rhythmically secure playing avoids suggesting that her approach is either too calculated or too swayed by the moment.

In the fugue movement of the A minor sonata, I  hope it's not too fanciful to hear in the repeated two- and three-note figures that seem to answer the unfolding of the main material an independence of utterance that evokes the call-and-response patterns of much black American music. 

It's as if Bach predicted how a kind of bounce off short response figures helps animate the tune (in fugue terms, the subject). The analogy took shape for me after I heard an NPR interview with blues scholar Peter Guralnick, who traced the origin of Ray Charles' breakout hit "I Got a Woman" to a song by a black gospel group (the Southern Tones, "It Must Be Jesus") that had a similarly brief vocal response to fill spaces between lines of the tune.

What's relevant here is that Koh gives integrity to even momentary changes in register and weight to each response to the "call." These support the overall structure while not disappearing within it. When they are repeated or slightly varied, they retain the individuality with which they were first uttered.

And when echo phrases are part of Bach's organization, as in the Allegro movement that concludes the A minor sonata, Koh doesn't overemphasize them. It's sufficient to hear what their expressive intention is without having the contrast highlighted. She avoids the kind of stress that Glenn Gould, with characteristic severity, would have called "theatrical." She concludes the A minor with an apt maestoso broadening of tempo that only a prim musical Puritan could object to.

The C major sonata, placed at the end of the second disc, includes a more challenging fugue. Having heard this sonata numerous times in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I can say it's not unusual for a performance to betray the effort needed to maintain clarity and avoid roughness. I'm reminded of the perceptive comment of a renowned concert violinist whose name escapes me: "Whenever someone comes up to me after a concert and says, 'I could tell you worked really hard on that,' I know I've given a bad performance." No suggestion of such risky brinkmanship is evident in Koh's superb playing of this fugue.

Now to the companion pieces: Berio's "Sequenza," one of a series for solo instruments, develops from digging into "A" and "B," and those two pitches exfoliate over the work's 15-minute, 40-second span. There is  shrewdly distributed ornamentation off such initial hard hitting, and eventually lyrical effusions. Especially exciting is an ascent to a perpetual-motion  episode with harsh punctuation before the etude-like composition concludes.

Harbison's piece, a survey of readily appreciable short forms identified by the seven movement titles, will have broader appeal, no doubt.  Like Bach, Harbison necessarily drives home his main points with sequences and echo phrases, as in "Dance 1."  After an exquisitely phrased, wistful "Air," then a "March" whose insistent, accented line has pauses suggesting an ironic commitment to martial values, Koh illuminates "Dance 2." This one suggests choreography, evoking balletic extensions, turning, leaps and, with accelerating passagework, sweeps across the stage. The movement could well be taken up by dancers, although an imaginative choreographer might draw much inspiration from the entire suite.

Until then, this world-premiere recording ought to impress the armchair listener with the zest and commitment evident in Koh's performance. "For Violin Alone" may be destined for long life even if the recital stage remains its only venue — given an artist of this caliber. And the three "Bach & Beyond" albums will endure as a recording project at the heights of 21st-century violin playing.



Saturday, December 5, 2020

'Wonderful Life' senses the heartbeat of a beloved movie in IRT's streaming holiday production

George Bailey's life is under angelic supervision. 

The fast-paced backstage summary of Indiana Repertory Theatre's new production of "This Wonderful
Lfe" introduces virtual audiences both to the material, already familiar to fans of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," and the play's sole actor here, the protean Rob Johansen. The performance is accessible online through January 3.

Johansen, as the expression goes, needs no introduction, particularly to IRT audiences who have seen him in 48 company roles up to now. So all will recognize the actor's characteristic manner of bringing everything in his performances forward in intimate connection with an audience. It bursts forth from the start, as WFYI-TV's cameras follow him from dressing room through corridors and via stairways onto the main stage. All this revs up the nostalgia engine while he is rattling off bits from the script, inviting the viewer to become nearly as breathlessly committed to the story as he is.

As a movie, "It's a Wonderful Life" captured American feelings of hope and renewal after the rigors of World War II. A small-town businessman who as a young man yearned to put his life upon the world stage grows into a thoroughly domesticated good citizen of Bedford Falls: George Bailey becomes associated with readiness to do good as he matures. Soon we are made aware that Johansen, under the scrupulous direction of Benjamin Hanna, is effectively populating Bedford Falls with the Dickensian vividness of his characterizations.

Bailey on the brink of a bad decision.

Physically and vocally attuned to such requirements, Johansen also never moves us far from the heart of the story.  We are drawn from the way George's progress is checked by some crucial accidents into the threat posed by the town's chief mover and shaker, the banker Mr. Potter. Naturally, all the goodness that seems so abundant in Bedford Falls is subject to Johansen's gift for nuance and differentiation; but so is the abiding evil summed up in Potter. In a riveting impersonation, the actor makes his features gnarled, his glare menacing, and his postures snakelike. 

We sometimes speak of great screen actors as having a love affair with the camera. Though necessarily Johansen has to be a screen actor in a virtual presentation marked by IRT's usual thorough professionalism of design, he remains a stage artist extraordinaire.

It's a compliment to Johansen's performance that he puts across 100 minutes of narrative and 30-character portrayals as if he were onstage before theatergoers filling the IRT's seats. The nuances and subtleties are as indelible as the huge, space-filling moments. The camera is doing its job perfectly, but in the best sense, Johansen ignores it. He plays to the back row as fully as to the front row, just as he does in crowded theaters. The bliss of our experience of "This Wonderful Life" is that we are all in the front row, feeling every line and gesture imprinted on our attention and absorption in the drama.

Of course, the supernatural element in the story shapes its meaning. The flashing of lamps in George's environment represents the angelic planning of a mission to save him, with apprentice angel Clarence supervised by well-established senior colleagues, Franklin and Joseph (a trio voiced, but not embodied, by Johansen). That sets up the play's narrative, all under the actor's superb command, dipping into and out of the lives of everyone concerned. Johansen's evocation of the film's star, Jimmy Stewart, is unassailably right, yet without excessive mimicry.

Bailey's suicidal despair one Christmas Eve gets corrected by a revelation of what Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. His wish for that fundamental avoidance is granted provisionally. The vision is enabled by Clarence, working to earn his wings with an earthly intervention that will allow one good man to realize how essential his existence has been to the promise of this wonderful life. Steve Murray's adaptation and IRT's production reaffirm that promise, a balm for this time of global anxiety and doubt.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]









Saturday, November 14, 2020

Drive it and park it: Indy Jazz Fest starts virtually with "Garfield Park Sessions: Celebrate Naptown"

The tour de force finale of the Indy Jazz Fest premiere

We have all adopted adjustments to doing our usual jobs since mid-March, and blogging about musical events is no exception. Mine is a labor of love, which eliminates the kind of stress that paid jobholders are feeling.

The necessary idleness has not hurt me as much as it has the many excellent people who make their living, at least in part, from music. So I leaped at the chance Friday night to cover the opening of the 2020 Indy Jazz Fest, well documented on video in daylight performances and in warmer weather at Garfield Park. The MacAllister Amphitheater was the audience-free site for the parade of local bands, with a lot of mix-and-match among the personnel.

Among the pleasures, since I've brought up the site (of which I have a firm memories of concerts and plays in those fabled pre-pandemic days), was the camera work. There were recurrent shots from above the amphitheater looking toward downtown; they were breathtaking. It was the Indianapolis musical version of looking from a ventricle into the central heart.

I also enjoyed views of the sort that would have been much different, or unavailable, from audience seats, however much we might wish for a return to that vantage point. I liked Everett Greene's animated expressions during his performance of Horace Silver's "Senor Blues," especially with glimpses of tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught's radiant smile in the singer's direction. I usually avoid punning on people's names, but we might as well collapse his name into "Evergreen" at this point — so ageless does he seem.

The camera loves some soloists more than others, which will inevitably be the case. I'll give this show's top honors for the love affair between camera and singer to Rebecca Rafla for her performance of "You Stepped Out of a Dream." In sight and sound alike, this was memorable. The rendition itself stepped out of a dream.

It was also thrilling to catch a side view of the front line as the Indy Jazz Collective strutted its way through the legendary Pookie Johnson's "Going to the Avenue": four horns (two tenors, trumpet, and trombone) in the front line, that juicy ensemble sound powered by Jared Michael Thompson, Rob Dixon, Mark Buselli, and Freddie Mendoza. 

Finally, with the addition of Faught and alto saxophonist Amanda Gardier, six horns! That was in a Rob Dixon finale called "Soul Talk," and it certainly did preach righteously, with a phalanx of stars behind the horn folks: guitarists Ryan Taylor and Charlie Ballantine, drummers Richard "Sleepy" Floyd and Carrington Clinton, keyboardists Steven Alexander Jones and Steve Allee, and bassist Brandon Meeks.

Reviewing an anthology of performances remotely can't follow the usual protocols of full-canvas journalism. So I am making choices here that aren't meant to disparage any player or performance I don't mention. Besides, I'm fond of a Ralph Waldo Emerson description of his reading habits; "I read for the lustres," he said. Well, I listen for the lustres, particularly with the festival format, and those sparkling moments will differ from person to person. Here's another literary reference that might  be helpful: Of daffodils in the familiar poem of that title, William Wordsworth wrote in the last stanza: "They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the  bliss of solitude."

Some of what is flashing upon my inward ear in solitude this morning: Complementary solos, as in the way Dixon followed up Gardier's luminous alto in "Strange Idea," a wry modal original that Ballantine wrote for his band and has recorded on his new album "Vonnegut." In the same piece, there was a compelling contrast between a raving guitar solo and its soft answers from piano and bass.

Another one: Thompson and Premium Blend performing Taylor's "In the Lac," highlighted by Gardier's lyrical but never wispy alto solo, a deft episode of trading fours, and a great ending with simultaneous blending of forces throughout the band. Here's an early float in the lustre parade: the kind of energizing transition between solos that's often obscured by an applauding audience was fully audible in the way Faught took off from the burning suggestions of Joel Tucker's guitar solo.

A kind of collective lustre was the opportunity to study different keyboard styles, particularly in close-ups of hands doing their individual things in black and white: Steve Allee, Steven Alexander Jones, Kevin Anker, Pavel Polanco-Safadit. The Indy Guitar Summit offered similar opportunities to appreciate Ballantine, Taylor, and Tucker in succession. On a smaller scale, but with explosive impact in "Soul Talk," how could you top the look the show afforded of the different drumming styles of Clinton and Floyd, in full cry, meshing simultaneously in a risky format of the sort that split up the classic Coltrane quartet.

Well, that's about enough. My bad penmanship is forcing me to leave out amplifying a few of my notes, but that's no great loss: What does "career or dinner good" (my best guess) mean, with a little star beside it, in my entry for Indy Guitar Summit's "I Hear a Rhapsody"?  Who knows? 

Again, I'm out of room here to mention more good impressions, whether or not they're reinforced by legible notes. Here's hoping we all get many opportunities to listen for the lustres live before too long, preferably without masks, etc. In the meantime, may both the careers and the dinners of Indy Jazz Fest musicians offer good sustenance. The public can get its fill by connecting to the remainder of the concerts through the web site.


Monday, November 2, 2020

'Present Company' should not be excepted if you seek a new pianoless jazz quartet

Peter Hess with his other instrument: bass clarinet

 Jazz musicians who play non-keyboard instruments probably don't have anything against pianists, but now and then they form bands that don't include them and achieve either enduring or occasional good results.

A new entry in that niche field is the Peter Hess Quartet in "Present Company" (Diskonife Records). The disc comprises seven originals (by Hess, with a couple of collaborations thrown in) that make the most of the tenor saxophone, trombone, bass, and drums makeup of the band.

The arrangements are lustrous individually, with clever distribution of material among the four musicians. The unaccompanied bass intro to "The Net Menders" yields to a soft-spoken, hymn-like theme for the horns.

 Subsequently, we have some bowed bass from Adam Hopkins as commentary on what he has said before; then the horns (Hess, tenor sax, and Brian Drye, trombone) get wilder. I don't know if there's a biblical subtext here, but there came to mind the biblical scene as Jesus recruits his disciples from men about to cast nets into the Sea of Galilee, promising "I will make you fishers of men." The mission's promise of both solace and turmoil to come is reflected in the music.

I may be reading too much into this; by the same token, I might be reading too little into "Engines," which despite its title is the only track on "Present Company"  that spends too much time ruminating. What are these engines up to?  There is no groove to catch here, it seems, though drummer Tomas Fujiwara is a reliably steadying influence. That seems only proper for an excess of rumination. The track chugs along without generating a great deal of interest beyond the obvious compatibility of the players with one another.

Otherwise, the vibe is inviting throughout, and the themes are presented across a spectrum of the group's four primary colors. As perhaps with "Engines,"  ironic humor may well be the deliberate message of "When to Move," the piece that closes the disc. At the start, the horns are deliberately shaky, as if to mimic the hesitancy behind many real-life decisions of "when to move." The music gains assertiveness, establishes a reliable pulse, and heads toward a confident conclusion.

This is a set worthy of its parade of predecessors, from the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker archetype on down through various modernist bands that make complete statements without the piano's inevitable tendency to dominate.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Comfortable in New Orleans: Cyrus Nabipoor leads quintet in 'Live at the Marigny Opera House'

Cyrus Nabipoor is now based in Portland

A young trumpeter based in Portland, Oregon, with a strong sentimental link to New Orleans (he's a magna cum laude graduate of Loyola University), Cyrus Nabipoor took a quintet into the former church in 2019 to play his compositions for a concert audience.

"Live at the Marigny Opera House" ( documents that comfortable hometown visit to a cultural venue that was a Catholic church from 1853 until the diocese  closed it in 1997.  In its repurposed function, it has been called the Marigny Opera House since 2011

For 144 years, the Marigny was a church.

The resonance in the recording is slightly churchy,  and the setting seems copacetic for the music. The venue's original use is alluded to in "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," one of two tunes borrowed for a concert otherwise featuring Nabipoor compositions. 

The comfort zone is settled into, but there's no resting in the hackneyed for these adept musicians. "What Is This," which opens the disc asking that perpetually valid question, alternates fast and slow sections smoothly. The introduction to Nabipoor's solo trumpet is inviting, and tenor saxophonist Brad Walker is at ease over the horn's full range, favoring occasional deep dives into the low register.

The front line is quite compatible in ensemble, whether playing the theme in unison ("Hipody") or in close parallel harmony a la Mexican pop (Javier Navarrete's "Pan's Labyrinth Lullaby," introduced by the leader's unaccompanied bugle-call evocations). 

Spirited humor bubbles to the surface easily in "Huckleberry Madness." A country barn-dance atmosphere casts occasional glimpses toward some guitar shredding from George Wilde, whose playing increasingly embodies the "madness" in the title. Wilde settles for an accompaniment role in the set-closer, "NOK Blues." Its skipping bounce tempo folds in successive, bright solos from Nabipoor, Walker, New Orleans double-bass fixture James Singleton, and drummer Brad Webb, offering a parade-ground summing up.  

The conciseness with which the quintet states its case is admirable. There are a few times that the pieces seem to conclude too abruptly ("NOK Blues" is an exception), but that practice offers welcome relief from the norm of the stretched-out small-group jazz common over the past half-century.  The ingratiating melodic profile of Nabipoor's music and its avoidance of overstatement make this an attractive disc.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

In 'If Time Could Stand Still,' Gregory Tardy sums up mature viewpoint as a faith-based family man

Gregory Tardy and his band etch midlife testament.
 Many of us in and out of the arts have taken on what passes for wisdom with the need to reduce normal activity as the pandemic rages. For a mature jazzman like Gregory Tardy, this summing-up in midlife is captured by "If Time Could Stand Still" (WJ3 Records).

Though recorded in 2019, the release of this disc last month is timely, as the music's reflectiveness suits the universal pause button that Covid-19 has pressed for everyone. Now at his home base in Tennessee, the tenor saxophonist went into a Brooklyn studio with his quartet (Keith Brown, piano; Alexander Claffy, bass; Willie Jones III, drums) for a program of all originals, except for the standard "Everything Happens to Me." (Trumpeter Alex Norris guests on two of the eight selections.)

At 54, Tardy has behind him a wealth of collaborations in the wide jazz world, with associations including Elvin Jones, Andrew Hill, Tom Harrell, Nicholas Payton, and Bill Frisell.  To cover the borrowing first, the bandleader exhibits his steady lyricism in "Everything Happens to Me," showing superb control in the suspenseful end of the bridge section and attaching a measured, but passionate, solo cadenza as the track concludes. The ironic perspective of the lyric is lightly worn.

The biblical reference in the opening track, "A Great Cloud of Witnesses," is brought forward by the positive stain of religious faith throughout the music. The groundedness of Tardy as man and musician is evident in the title track: "If Time Could Stand Still" is not swamped in nostalgia as the title might lead you to suspect, but rather generates a poised ballad feeling of taking stock, with a display of Tardy's pure sax tone communicating emotional commitment as well.

Further declarations of enduring values come with "Absolute Truth," a neo-bop venture with two horns in the front line, and a second partnering with the dazzling but never gaudy Norris in "The Message in the Miracle." The spiritual heritage with which Tardy identifies gets a punning salute in "I Swing Because I'm Happy," an effervescent piece whose momentum gets individual pushes from Brown's piano solo and Claffy's well-recorded follow-up. The inspiration for this project that Tardy gives explicitly to Willie Jones III is confirmed by the drummer's sensitivity throughout.